‘Maistir’ and fairies- the uses of urine…

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Crodh mara by Zenna Tagney (Isle of Skye)

We all know the problem- we’ve saved up a supply of stale urine and then we don’t know what to do with it all…  Luckily, folklore provides us with a variety of uses for the control of nuisance fairies, as I shall describe.

It’s well known that the Good Folk object to strong and offensive smells, whether that’s a burning shoe, singed sheep hide or the powerful ammonia scent of stale urine, a substance our ancestors stored up for use in curing leather and, at a household level, for cleaning laundry– it removes stains and brightens colours.  This substance is called maistir in Scottish Gaelic and had many additional uses.

Trapping with urine

At Shewbost on the Hebrides fairy cattle, the crodh mara, used to come ashore to graze and the local people were able to catch them and add them to their own herds of livestock by the simple measure of sprinkling maistir across their path back to the sea (see MacPhail, Folklore from the Hebrides, II, p.384).  Furthermore, mermaids- just like the fairies- also have an aversion to the substance.  Sprinkled between a mermaid and the sea, she would not be able to cross, although these charms were only effective so long as the urine was renewed daily.  In one case the person responsible forgot one morning to sprinkle ‘fresh’ maistir and, as soon as she detected it, the mermaid escaped, calling her herd of fae cows by name to follow her.

Repelling with urine

A sprinkling of maistir around a home will protect the household from the faes.  It is especially helpful just after a baby has been born, when both nursing mother and child need to be protected against the risk of abduction.  In Ross-shire in the north of Scotland, all new born babies were bathed in urine (or uisge-or- ‘golden water) to prevent the fairies stealing them (Folklore vol.14, p.381).Perhaps on the same basis, carrying the mother over the drain from the cow shed is reckoned to be equally effective.

Changelings could be driven away, forcing the faeries to return their infant captive, by exposing them to a range of unpleasant conditions, of which the mildest involved maistir.  A suspected changeling could be laid on top of the pot in which the liquid was being stored and, because of the stench, this might alone be enough to expel it.  This remedy is plainly the flip side to the defence of new born babies and their mothers.

In fact, maistir can be a general protective against bad luck.  On the Isle of Man, for example, ploughs would be washed with the substance before they were taken out to the fields for the annual ploughing.  On Halloween in the Highlands cattle, doorposts and walls of houses would all be sprinkled with the liquid to protect the premises from the fays.

Conclusion

So, nuisance fairies? Problem solved!  Sprinkle stale urine around your house and they won’t come near.  The problem is, nobody else may either, given the stench…

 

Fairies and stolen goods

Round about our coal fire

Fairies dancing near their hill, the door of which stands open

Readers will, by now I’m sure, be very familiar with the idea that fairies are inveterate thieves of human property.  In this post, I’ll challenge those preconceptions to some degree, and look at cases where they help us to retrieve items that we have lost or have been stolen.

The information we have on this is fairly limited and, unfortunately, all of it comes from the context of criminal trials, in which the defendant faced an allegation of witchcraft or something similar.

Fairy Knowledge

Most of the cases date from the sixteenth century.  The first concerns a woman from London, known to us only as “Mrs Croxton”, who lived in St Giles parish in the city in 1549.  All we know about her is that she offered to help find lost items, and this without the use of any charms or other magical techniques; instead, “she only speaketh with the fayrayes.”

About a decade and a half later a man called John Walsh was examined on suspicion of witchcraft in Dorset.  He had visited the fairies at their hills, either at noon or midnight, and acquired a range of information from them.  They told him who had been bewitched and they could also help him locate stolen goods.  With the fairies’ aid he had recovered several stolen horses, he claimed, and denied doing harm to anyone.

Scottish witches, with the devil and fairies under a knowe.

Witches’ Wisdom

The next example dates from 1576.  Bessie Dunlop, of Irvine in Scotland, was arrested after she had offered to help a man retrieve a stolen cloak.  Before this, she had been very active, it appears, identifying the whereabouts of stolen property and naming the culprits.  Her clientele ranged across the social spectrum including Lady Blair and Lady Thirdpart.  Bessie derived her abilities from a fairy man called Tom Reid, who had first approached her when she was alone in a field one day in 1572.  In consultation with Tom, Bessie was able to discover what had happened to the stolen goods and was also able to diagnose and offer cures for a range of illnesses.  Despite the good she appeared to have done within her community, Bessie was convicted of witchcraft and was strangled and then burned on November 8th 1576.

A century later (November 1677) a vagrant man called Donald McIlmichall was put on trial at the Tollbooth in Inveraray.  Initially the charge against him had been the theft of a cow, but it turned out on examination that he claimed to have visited the fairies under their hill on frequent occasions, joining their dances or providing the music for them.  This was all supposed to be kept secret.  When he told a friend of his visits, he had been stricken in the cheek by way of punishment.

Donald asked the fairies about the whereabouts of two horses stolen at Leismore and they were able to advise him.  They also voluntarily gave him information about a number of other stolen items, whose owners he duly informed.  Nonetheless, for the “horrid cryme of corresponding with the devil and consulting with him anent stolen goods and getting information for their discovery,” Donald was hanged and his goods forfeit.

These stories make for depressing reading, but much Scottish fairy information derives from witch trials, few of which ended happily for the victims.  What can we drive from these other than a sense of the human tragedy and cruelty involved?

Summary & further reading

Firstly, it seems fairly clear that the stolen goods involved weren’t stolen by the fays: the culprits were humans whose offences were exposed by supernatural means.  The fairies did plenty of stealing (food, mainly) but they don’t seem to have been betraying themselves here.

Secondly, this knowledge of secret acts has to be derived from the fairies’ powers of second sight.  We know already that the fays can see into the future; it asks a lot less to imagine that they might be aware of what is happening currently, or has happened, in a human community around them.  This readiness to tell tales about people seems to be related to the fairies tendency to prefer some individuals over others, with gifts of money and skills.  The people who could assist others in their  village or town, recovering for them lost property, would have gained prestige and, doubtless, rewards.  Indirectly, then, the fairies were bestowing wealth and fortune on those they favoured.

 

Hairy fairies

young girl among the faeries

Young Girl Among The Fairies by Brian Froud

What’s fairies’ hair like?  We have a few scraps of evidence on the matter, which gives us some quite surprising answers.

Our tendency today is to envisage beautiful fays with gorgeous locks- and these ideas are not solely a product of our more recent benign and lovely image of our Good Neighbours.  It’s been said that the faes have a preference for taking fair-haired human children and this predilection seems to have been transferred to the abductors as well as the abductees.

In Victorian times, for example, Angus Macleod of Harris eulogised as follows:

“Their heavy brown hair was streaming down to their waist and its lustre was of the fair golden sun of summer.  Their skin was as white as the swan of the wave, and their voice was as melodious as the mavis of the wood, and they themselves were as beauteous of feature and as lithe of form as a picture, while their step was as lithe and stately and their minds as sportive as the little red hind of the hill.” (see Wentz, p.116)

One Welsh story informs us that the tylwyth teg ideal of beauty is red-hair and many of the more romantic accounts of fairy troops and fairy queens portray them with flowing, glossy manes.  This isn’t the whole story, though.

Shaggy Sith

In 1792 an account of the parish of Liberton in Edinburgh described the local fairy women as being “girls of diminutive size, dressed in green with dishevelled hair, who frequented sequestered places and at certain times conversed with men.”  Presumably those men weren’t put off the fairy lovers by the state of their hair.

A second contemporary report from Kirkmichael in Banffshire likewise described fairy women appearing to travellers, “with dishevelled hair floating over their shoulders and with faces more blooming than the vermeil blush of a summer morning.”  Perhaps the attraction for humans indeed is the fresh, natural look of the faes.

Lastly, Scottish writer Hugh Miller recorded a famous account of the ‘departure of the fairies.’  Two children saw a cavalcade of fairies riding away from Burn of Eathie on the Black Isle.  They were unattractive creatures dressed in old fashioned clothes and, from under their caps, “their wild uncombed locks shot out over their cheeks and foreheads.” (Miller, Old Red Sandstone, 1841, p.215)

This uncombed state may reflect nothing more than the fact that these are wild country dwellers who may have neither the leisure nor the lifestyle for much grooming.  Perhaps, in the circumstances, dread-locked fays are what really we ought to expect.  Even so, the state of the fairies’ hair frequently seems to reflect the character and attractiveness of the being as a whole.  The brownies and the less friendly goblins and hags almost always seem to be described as having shaggy, coarse, dark hair.  For human witnesses, it’s almost impossible to conceive of a malign entity that, at the same time, has sleek, groomed locks; our minds unconsciously reject such a pairing.  Nonetheless, some modern witnesses have described seeing faes with feathers growing in their hair- or even with feathers instead of hair. (See for instance John Dathen, Somerset Fairies and Pixies, p.30)

iro waterfall fairy

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, Waterfall Fairy

Silky Selkies?

Let’s turn now to mermaids, creatures who traditionally have been renowned for their long hair (if only to preserve their womanly modesty).  Sightings of mermaids have described them variously as having short dark hair, flowing red locks, coarse hair, curly but oily green hair, and (most often) that flowing fair hair in which they take such great pride, sitting for hours on rocks combing it and admiring themselves in mirrors.

The lovely blonde mermaid in the sea is a cliché, but she’s not alone.  In Scottish rivers lives the freshwater mere-maid called the ceasg, a creature of great beauty (once you have reconciled yourself to the fact that she is half woman and half salmon).  Her hair has been described as being “long and flossy,” which I take to mean that it is very pale and silky- the name itself signifies a tuft of wool, linen or silk.

There are some much less appealing examples, though.  The Cornish water sprite, the bucca, has been said to have seaweed for hair.  One mermaid seen at Birsay on the Orkney mainland was recorded as being ‘covered in brown hair’, though whether this meant long hair covering her modesty or an actual covering of fur is not wholly clear.  This sighting brings us to the final curious case I’ll mention.  It’s another case from Orkney, of a man from Sourie in Sandwick who was carried off by the trows to Suleskerry, a rock outcrop in the sea fifty miles offshore.  The trows kept him there for what seemed to him like a few hours, before carrying him home again.  In fact, he’d been away for seven years.  This, in itself, meant that people had difficulties recognising him, a problem compounded by the fact that he was, it was said, “he was grown all over with hair on his return which so altered his appearance that his neighbours had some difficulty in recognising him.”  This may just be seven years without a barber, or it may perhaps be some more malign effect of fairy contact.  If it is the latter, it would be a particularly odd effect of close fairy contact.  It can also act as a reminder that not all fairies are quite what we anticipate- and that some of them can be furry beings, much against our expectations.

waterhouse, sketch-for-a-mermaid-1892

J M W Waterhouse

 

 

 

 

 

Fairy cures and potions

I have previously paid some attention to fairy healing, but I’ve recently gathered together a range of evidence on the types of cures and medicines that people have got from the fairies and it made sense to sort and arrange these to give a you a full idea of the sorts of methods and ingredients used.

There are a number of key elements or procedures regularly found in the cures, which are as follows.

Herbs

As a primarily rural people, it is far from surprising that the fays tend to use commonly found plants to make their potions.  Frequently we’re only told that ‘herbs’ were used, made into drinks and salves, but sometimes we are given more detail than just reading that they were “divers green herbs” which doesn’t help much at all.  Suspected witch, Isobel Stirling, used rowan in her cures; Elspeth Reoch used yarrow to cure nosebleeds; Bessie Dunlop was given something like the root of a beet by her fairy adviser and was told to cook it and make it into a salve or dry it and powder it.  Katherine Cragie was tried on Orkney in 1643 for both curing and inflicting illnesses; she treated those stricken by the trows with an application of foxglove leaves (the plant was called ‘Trowis Glove’ on Orkney at this time; it is not a practice to be imitated given the toxicity of the plant).  Nonetheless, Jonnet Miller of Kirkcudbright, tried in May 1658, also treated a dumb man with foxglove leaves in water from a south running stream.  Isobel Haldane of Perth was tried in 1623 for making charms, a skill she claimed to have been taught by the fairies.  She attempted to drive out a ‘shargie bairn’ (a changeling) using a drink made from ‘sochsterrie’ leaves (possibly star-grass); the infant died (which may or may not have been a successful cure). Lastly, in 1716, Farquhar Ferguson of Arran was tried before a church court for practising charms: one of his medicinal drinks was made from agrimony.

A range of illnesses would be treated with herbs.  For such maladies as “ane evill blast of wind” or being “elf-grippit” (having a fairy attack or seizure) Bessie Dunlop had a variety of cures.  She would mix assorted herbs together to feed to sick cattle; illnesses in people might be cured by ointments or by powders (which were presumably ingested); during her examination in court she added that if the patient “sweated out” the treatment, they would not recover.  Just like Bessie, Jonet Morrisone from the isle of Bute healed a little girl who’d been ‘blasted with the faryes’ using herbs.  Rather like Bessie, too, she told the court at her trial in 1662 that treatment in time should guarantee recovery, but if she was consulted too late, the patient might still “shirpe” (shrivel or wither) away.

Alesoun Peirsoun treated the Bishop of St Andrews for trembling fever, palpitations, weakness in the joints and the flux with a herbal ointment which she rubbed into his cheeks, neck, breast, stomach and side.  Alesoun had spent seven years visiting the faery court in Elfame and had seen the ‘good neighbours’ making their salves in pans over fires, using herbs they had picked before sunrise.

Herbs seemed to do more than cure illness in livestock and people, though.  Janet Weir of Edinburgh told her trial in April 1670 that her fairy helper, a woman who would intercede on Janet’s behalf with the fairy queen, also gave her a piece of tree or herb root which allowed her to “doe what she should desyre.”

A Visit to the Witch 1882 | Edward Frederick Brewtnall | oil painting
Edward Frederick Brewtnall, A visit to the witch

Food

The herbal remedies just discussed as often hard to separate from those involving food stuffs, some everyday ingredients, others rather more expensive and harder to come by.  For instance, Alesoun Peirsoun also treated the Bishop with a medicinal broth made from ewe’s milk, wood-ruff and other herbs, claret and the liquor of boiled hen, which he had to drink over two successive days- a quart at a time.  Bessie Dunlop made a similar preparation.  She was approached for help by a young gentlewoman who suffered from ‘cold blood’ and fainting fits, for which she prescribed a potion made from ginger, cloves, aniseed and liquorice mixed in strong ale and taken with sugar in the mornings before eating.  Margaret Dicksone of Pencaitland used eggs and meal to drive out a changeling- perhaps more of a charm than a cure, just as was the case with the aforementioned Elspeth Reoch.  She acquired the second sight by means of boiling an egg on three successive Sundays and using the ‘sweat’ that formed on the egg to wash her hands and then rub on her eyes.

The vicar of Warlingham in Surrey in the early seventeenth century recorded a range of cures that had apparently been taught to him “by the fayries.”  Some of them involved the shedding and use of blood (quite common in magical remedies), others used food and herbs together.  For example:

  • To cure boils, blotches and carbuncles, take the ripe berries of ivy growing on a north facing wall, dry them, powder them and then give as much as will cover a groat coin in a glass of wine. The patient should be rubbed til they sweat and then put to bed in fresh sheets and clothes.  They will be well by morning;
  • To make a tooth fall out- mix wheat meal with spurge and put the paste in the hollow of the tooth. Given that spurge sap is acidic, this would certainly have had some sort of effect; and,
  • For those who are forespoken or bewitched- take three sprigs of rosemary, two comfrey leaves, half a handful of succory, half a handful of thyme and three sprigs of herb grace. Seethe these in a quart of water taken from a stream and then strain.  Flavour with nutmeg, ginger, mace and sugar and drink warm, followed by five almonds.

Water

I’ve discussed before how water can have magical properties. For example, from Shetland there come several accounts of trows using ‘kapps’ (wooden bowls) to pour water over patients during healing ceremonies.  The implement and the liquid were both important apparently (Saxby, Shetland traditional lore, p.151).

This is very often seen in the fairy-taught healing procedures.  Margaret Alexander from Livingstone used well water combined with charms to cure sick people.  Likewise, Isobel Haldane, who lived in Perthshire, took water from wells and burns and in it washed the shirts of her patients.   A woman called Jonet Boyman from Edinburgh would also diagnose sickness using a patient’s shirt, taking it to a well on Arthur’s Seat just outside the city.  Jonet had first acquired her healing skills by going to the well and raising a whirlwind, from which emerged a fairy man who taught her.

Earlier I mentioned Jonnet Miller, from Kirkcudbright, and it’s worth repeating here that one of her remedies (at least) required water taken from a stream that ran southwards.  Stein Maltman of Stirling told his 1628 trial that he made several different uses of water in his cures.  He boiled elf-shot in water from a south flowing stream and either had a patient drink it or bathe in it; in another case he had a man bathe himself in such a stream having first diagnosed his illness by reciting charms over one of the man’s shirts. Margaret Dicksone, mentioned just now, also treated a suspected changeling child by washing it- and its shirt- in a south-flowing stream.

Rituals and other items

Our last category involves a mixture of odd materials that were considered to have medicinal effect.  Catharine Caray from Orkney diagnosed and cured the sick using thread, charms and stones to cure physical and spiritual illnesses. For example, the thread might be tied on with an invocation of the holy trinity and the words “’bone to bone, synnew to synnew, and flesche to flesche, and bluid to bluid.”  Threads, often red in colour, were regularly used to protect cattle and children from fairy attacks.  Bessie Dunlop, for example, was given a green silk thread by her fairy helper, Thom Reid, with which she assisted women in childbirth.

Suspected witch Andro Man was tried at Aberdeen in 1598.  He used several methods to cure animals: he hit them with birds but he also employed salt and black wool.  A sick man was cured by passing him nine times through a length of yarn, and then transferring the illness from that to a cat.  He would invoke St John and use other holy words in Latin borrowed from Catholic liturgy; he stopped oxen from running away using ‘lax water’ (possibly water from a salmon stream or in which salmon had been cooked).  Lastly, he protected fields of corn by placing four stones at each corner.

Treatment by passing patients through hanks of yarn was also practised by Isobel Haldane, by Janet Trall from near Perth- who then cut up the yarn into nine parts and buried it in three different places- and by Thomas Geace of Fife, who burned the yarn afterwards.  I assume that this has some relation to the use of girdles in diagnosing sickness.

Stein Maltman, mentioned in the last section, had learned his healing skills from the “fairie folk,” whom he often saw, and they supplied him with a repertoire of cures.  He rubbed some patients with elf-shot; over others he waved a drawn sword, on the basis that the naked iron would scare the malignant fairies away; finally he advised some of those who consulted him to return to the spots where they felt they had picked up their infections, there to pray for healing.

waterhouse_destiny

J M W Waterhouse, Destiny

For more on faery medicines and cures, see the discussion in my ‘Faery Lifecycle’ (2021):

The real Starlight Express- straight out of fairyland

starlight
The wrong Starlight Express entirely (by Southeastern Youth Theatre Group, Ireland)

We are all familiar with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, Starlight Express; the truth is, though, that its title was not original: it was borrowed from a 1915 composition by Sir Edward Elgar.

The Original Production

Fantasy and horror writer Algernon Blackwood, who has several faery titles to his name, wrote a novel for younger readers in 1913- A Prisoner in Fairyland.  The text was adapted into a play for children by Violet Alice Pearn and, in due course, the idea arose to create a musical from the stage play, as a “piece of Red Cross work for the mind during the first agony of the [first world] war.”  Sir Edward Elgar, the distinguished classical composer, was approached to provide the songs and incidental music.

Image result for elgar

Sir Edward Elgar avec son pipe.

Elgar worked to a very short timescale.  He was asked to compose the score on November 11th 1915 and, by recycling ideas from his youth, he had the music ready for rehearsals at the start of December.  The production then opened at the Kingsway Theatre in London on December 29th.  Whilst the music was praised, the adaptation of the book was not regarded as a success by critics, although the target audience of children seemed to enjoy it, and the production ran for only forty performances over just one month before closing.  There had been practical and technical difficulties with the staging and with the loss of key personnel: both the original composer and the intended producer were called up for military service and Elgar himself was unable to conduct when his wife had a car accident days before the opening night.  The main problem, though, was the script.  Blackwood complained to Elgar at “this murder of my simple little play.  Arts and Crafts pretentious rubbish stitched onto your music by a silly crank who has never read the play.”   The play’s sentimental mysticism seemed to the taste of very few.

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Algernon Blackwood

Actually, it seems that the author was not being entirely frank with the composer when he sought to shift the blame like this.  Blackwood and Pearn, the latter being the winner of the Era’s 1913 Playwrights’ Competition for The Minotaur, had in fact begun working together on the adaptation of The Prisoner of Fairyland soon after its publication in 1913 and had sought interest from theatre managements for its production. In fact, Pearn proved to be a prolific dramatist who went on to adapt several other of Blackwood’s works, including Karma- A Reincarnation Play in 1918.  Admittedly, though, she was still something of a novice in 1915, being only 25.

The Stage Play

The plot of the hour-long performance is slender indeed.  The general idea is that, in time of war, only children can provide comfort and restore unity.  Conflict was represented by a troubled family whose children form a secret society and identify themselves with the constellations.  They live in ‘star caves’ and their mission it is to restore harmony to the “wumbled” (worried and muddled) adults by using star dust.

As one song puts it:

“Kiss me again ‘til I sleep and dream

That I’m lost in your fairylands…

For the grown-up folk are troublesome folk

And the book of their childhood is torn,

Is blotted and crumpled and torn!”

Sprites descend from the starlight express and scatter their star dust, crying:

“Unwumble deftly! The world has need of you!

They’ll listen to my song and understand

That exiled over long from fairyland,

The weary world has rather lost its way.”

The fairy plan is to sow earth’s “little gardens of unrest” with joy and trust, thereby to restore “Love, laughter, courage, hope.”

We’ve considered before two other contemporary Great War plays, The War Fairies and Britain’s DefendersThe Starlight Express explores some of the same territory- the function children and fairies may play in restoring peace and harmony- but with fewer direct interventions in human affairs (most notably in the direction of the war) by the Good Folk.

Summary

The play’s failure consigned it to obscurity (although Elgar’s score is still performed and recorded) and this apparently enabled Lloyd Webber to purloin the title without any fear of confusion.  Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating little document attesting yet again the role of fairies during wartime in the early twentieth century as well as providing a further illustration of the influence that faery has had upon music- whatever form that may take: opera, concerto or rock song.

See my review of Blackwood’s Prisoner in Fairyland in a separate posting.

The Fairy Faith in English Music

bax 1

I’ve written previously about Rutland Boughton, the (original) Glastonbury Festival and the use of Arthurian and Faery themes in opera and song.  Here I expand further on this theme within British classical music.

Arnold Bax

Arnold Bax (1883-1953) was a British composer for whom fairy and Celtic themes were of major significance.  From his time as a student at the Royal Academy of Music between 1900 and 1905 Bax was greatly attracted to Ireland and Celtic folklore.

Bax & the Celtic Twilight

Soon after his graduation, Bax departed from classical influences and deliberately adopted what he conceived of as a Celtic idiom.  His infatuation with the newly revived ‘Celtic’ culture, and with the island of Ireland, must be understood within the broader context of the  fin-de-siècle artistic and spiritual fashions upon which the composer’s youthful imagination was nourished.

The latest aesthetic fashions tended to favour anything exotic and which contrasted with common-place concerns and the practicalities of everyday life. Theosophy, Eastern mysticism, French Symbolism and the spiritual Celticism that was so much in vogue in the 1890s all contributed important strands to the artistic culture of the time, while in the not too distant background was the Pre-Raphaelite medievalism of Rossetti and William Morris. There was much talk of neo-paganism and a strong interest in the occult.  Undoubtedly, too, a large part of the general appeal of these subjects was that their potent atmosphere of sexuality. To this can be added, particularly for a musician, the impact of Wagnerian music drama, the daring novelties of Strauss and, a decade or so later, the lavish splendours of the Russian ballet.

Bax was intoxicated with all of this intellectual ferment and Celticism in particular dominated his imagination for a time and led directly to his fascination with Ireland.  Even so, as we shall see, he remained equally susceptible to the exuberant and decadent poetry of Swinburne, and to the exotic influence of Russia. They were all just different aspects of the same extravagant sources of inspiration and they all left their mark on his music.

W.B. Yeats was, of course, the high priest of this Celticism and Bax duly came under his spell. In 1902, he says, he read The Wanderings of Usheen (Oisin), “and in a moment the Celt within me stood revealed.” In attempting to explain what he meant by this rhetorical phrase Bax has told us that, in his opinion, “the Celt- although he knew more clearly than most races the difference between dreams and reality- deliberately chose to follow the dream.” As there was “a tireless hunter of dreams” in his own make-up, Bax concluded that behind his everyday English exterior there must exist an inner Celtic self. His recognition of the true nature of this inner self, he insisted, he owed to Yeats.  The poet’s influence was “the key that opened the gate of the Celtic wonderland to my wide-eyed youth,” and it was shortly after his first discovery of Niamh, Oisin and the enchanted islands in the western seas that Bax visited Ireland for the first time. The composer never doubted what the country had given him. If Yeats’ particular brand of Irish Celticism allowed Bax to focus his adolescent emotions , and to recognise what he believed was his ‘Celtic self,’ then the country itself provided him with a physical setting for his fantasies. “My dream became localised,” he said. Ireland represented that dream for him, although very evidently Bax saw the country through an idealistic haze:

“I went to Ireland as a boy of nineteen in great spiritual excitement and once there my existence was at first so unrelated to material actualities that I find it difficult to remember it in any clarity. I do not think I saw men and women passing me on the roads as real figures of flesh and blood; I looked through them back to their archetypes, and even Dublin itself seemed peopled by gods and heroic shapes from the past.”

Bax travelled extensively in the country and, for some years before the Great War, had homes both in England and in Ireland. So great was his identification with, and immersion in, the country and its cultural heritage that he even wrote Irish poetry under the pseudonym of Dermot O’Byrne.  Bax’s brother also lived in Dublin during the period and through him the composer got to know mystic poet and painter AE (George Russell) and had contact with the city’s influential circle of  Theosophists.

The result of this infatuation with Ireland can be heard in the music Bax composed during this phase of his life. “In part at least I rid myself of the sway of Wagner and Strauss,” he later said, “and began to write Irishly, using figures and melodies of a definitely Celtic curve,” although he never made any use of actual folk songs. The Irish influence is clear from the titles of works like A Connemara Revel (1904) and An Irish Overture (1905), while Cathleen-ni-Hoolihan, also of 1905, and Into the Twilight of 1908, clearly reflect his interest in Yeats. Nonetheless, despite his contact with, and sympathy for, the Gaelic-speaking population, his music always belonged to the “non-existent Ireland of the Celtic Twilight.”

For his first important work, A Celtic Song Cycle of 1904, Bax chose to set poems by the Scottish writer Fiona Macleod, and he produced about a dozen or so other songs to her verses in the years immediately following .  Fiona Macleod was, after Yeats, the greatest populariser of Celticism at the end of the nineteenth century (readers may recall that Boughton was similarly influenced), even though the writing is now virtually unknown. Her work was arguably as much an inspiration for Bax at this period in his life as was the work of Yeats, although he never acknowledged this explicitly. As we’ve seen before, no such writer actually existed, because Fiona Macleod was in truth the Celtic alter ego of William Sharp, the Scottish literary critic, biographer and novelist. Bax met Sharp in due course and the influence of Sharp’s verse on the music he composed in the first decade of the century is very strong.

Fairy Music

In 1908 Bax began a working on trilogy of tone poems called Eire (Into the Twilight; In the Faëry Hills and Roscatha). A review of In the Faëry Hills in the Manchester Guardian said that “Mr Bax has happily suggested the appropriate atmosphere of mystery” and the Musical Times praised “a mystic glamour that could not fail to be felt by the listener.”

Into the Twilight began as life as a sketch for an orchestral interlude in Bax’s projected opera, Déirdre, based on the life of the tragic Irish heroine. Only the opening passages of Into the Twilight were actually newly written in 1908; much of the rest of the tone poem was a re-composition of one of Bax’s student works, Cathleen-ni-Hoolihan, which was composed between 1903 and 1905.

In the Faëry Hills, to which the composer gave the alternative Irish title An Sluagh Sidhe (The Fairy Host), was inspired by Yeat’s The Wanderings of Oisin.  Bax wrote of the origin of the piece itself that “I got this mood under Mount Brandon with all W B [Yeats]’s magic about me – no credit to me of course because I was possessed by Kerry’s self”. He wrote in a programme note for the work that he had sought “to suggest the revelries of the ‘Hidden People’ in the inmost deeps and hollow hills of Ireland”.

In The Wanderings of Oisin the fairy princess Niamh falls in love with the Irish hero, Oisin, and his poetry, and persuades him to join her in the immortal islands. He sings to the immortals what he conceives to be a song of joy, but his audience finds mere earthly joy intolerable:

“But when I sang of human joy
A sorrow wrapped each merry face,
And, Patrick! by your beard, they wept,
Until one came, a tearful boy;
A sadder creature never stept
Than this strange human bard,” he cried;
And caught the silver harp away…”

The immortals then sweep Oisin into “a wild and sudden dance” that “mocked at Time and Fate and Chance”.  The basic idea of a mortal being enticed away by supernatural forces is paralleled in several of Bax’s orchestral works of the same period, for example The Garden of Fand (1913-16) and in some Greek influenced works we shall now examine.

Pagan Music

Despite the importance of Yeats’ mystic and fairy poetry to Bax’s music, the influences the composer drew upon were actually much broader and deeper.  His works are inspired by Irish and Arthurian myth, Scottish and Norse mythology, English folk tradition and by classical Greek legends.  Indeed, Bax himself once scathingly dismissed the ‘Celtic twilight’ of the contemporary writers as “all bunk derived by English journalists from the spurious Ossian and the title of an early work by Yeats. Primitive Celtic colours are bright and jewelled.”  He wanted to suggest that he was more interested in the raw, original sources than in modern imitations.

Bax’s pagan Greek influences are channelled through 19th-century English literature such as Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound and several works by Swinburne.  The latter’s recreation of this pagan world introduced a fresh element of ecstasy into English poetry which obviously had an enormous appeal for Bax, whose own youthful outpourings, both musical and literary, were marked by their intense passion.

Another of Bax’s scores, The Happy Forest (1914), bears a title taken from a prose-poem by Herbert Farjeon which was itself influenced by the Idylls of Theocritus, known as the ‘father’ of Greek pastoral poetry.  Bax used Farjeon as a point of departure for painting a musical impression of another enchanted wood filled with “the phantasmagoria of nature. Dryads, sylphs, fauns and satyrs abound- perhaps the goat-foot god may be there, but no man or woman.”

The most important of his scores from this time, Spring Fire (1913), was based largely on the first chorus of Algernon Swinburne’s Atalanta in Calydon, quotations from which appear at the head of each movement in the score. Completed at Tintagel and published in 1865, Swinburne’s poetic drama retold the Greek myth of the killing of the wild Calydonian boar by a band of heroes, that includes the huntress Atalanta. Bax was concerned with the earthier, primitive aspects of Greek mythology: the erotic capers of silvan demigods, the orgiastic frolics of the bacchantes and the followers of Pan, and the annual regeneration of nature.

Elemental phenomena- such as wild landscapes and seas- also had a very powerful effect upon him. His friend Mary Gleaves recalled that Bax had an “almost erotic” empathy with trees, and there are sexual connotations to his sea music as well. Bax himself acknowledged the non-Celtic nature of the ideas behind Spring Fire and the other scores and stated that ‘the true ecstasy of spring’ and the ‘affirmation of life’ were Hellenic concepts, foreign to the Celt: “Pan and Apollo, if ever they wandered so far from the Hesperidean garden as this icy Ierne, were banished at once in a reek of blood and mist and fire…”

These pagan scores date from the period just before the Great War, when there was a distinct artistic vogue for ‘pagan’ subjects. Nijinsky’s production of L’après-midi d’un faune was first performed in 1912, and The Rite of Spring in 1913. Other works of the period are Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé (1910) and Skryabin’s Prometheus (1913). Thus, in creating the finest of his pre-war compositions, Bax was not only embodying his own ‘adolescent dreams’ but responding to a broader trend.

Nympholepsy

The classical Greek influence is especially strong and relevant in one piece.  Originally a work for solo piano, Nympholept was completed by Bax in July 1912.  The title derives from Greek νυμφόληπτος (numpholēptos), one who suffers from nympholepsy, which is the state of rapture inspired by nymphs, and on the manuscript of the piece Bax wrote:

“The tale telleth how one walking at summer-dawn in haunted woods was beguiled by the nymphs, and, meshed in their shining and perilous dances, was rapt away for ever into the sunlight life of the wild-wood.”

The title was taken by Bax from a poem of 1894 by Algernon Swinburne, which describes a “perilous pagan enchantment haunting the midsummer forest.” In 1951, Bax further recorded that Swinburne’s poem was about the “panic induced by noonday silence in the woods.”  There is indeed a fevered noonday atmosphere to the verse, with its invocations of Pan and the pulse of being pervading everything:

“In the naked and nymph-like feet of the dawn… / And in each life living, O thou the God who art all.”

The manuscript of the orchestral version has an additional note by Bax, a quotation from George Meredith’s poem The Woods of Westermain, which conjures up further images of the goddess, imps and enchantment:

“Enter these enchanted woods/ You who dare…”

Robert Browning also wrote a poem entitled Numpholeptos, and Bax himself had written one called Nympholept, which is dated 26th February 1912- five months before the piano score was completed.  It was eventually published by him anonymously in Love Poems of a Musician (London, 1923) and tells how the narrator “chased all day the elfin bride” through a forest.  Browning too asks “What fairy track do I explore?” in his description of his obsessive love.  The equation between classical nymphs and native fairies is one that has been made since Tudor times, meaning that, in literary and musical terms, the terms can be interchangeable.

Regrettably, Bax’s optimistic yearning for an imaginary Arcadian existence (what he dismissed as “the ivory tower of my youth” in 1949) was soon to be swept away by the harsh realities of the The Great War, the Easter Rising in Ireland and, on a more personal level, the disintegration of his marriage. Never again in his music was Bax to visit the world of classical antiquity, or to recapture the mood of unadulterated happiness and elation.

john-ireland

John Ireland

For Arnold Bax, the love of myth and fairy lore was an intellectual matter; for fellow composer John Ireland (1869- 1962) it was real and physical, the product of personal sensation and experience.  He once declared of himself: “I am a Pagan.  A Pagan I was born and a Pagan I shall remain- that is the foundation of religion.”

Arthur Machen

“They told me Pan was dead, but I,

Oft marvelled who it was that sang

Down the green valleys languidly

Where the grey elder thickets hang…”

A key factor in Ireland’s philosophy and music was the writing of Welsh novelist, Arthur Machen.  The composer first came across his work when he picked up a copy of The House of Souls at Preston railway station in 1906.  He said that he instantly bought it and instantly loved it: its impact upon him was as important as had been reading De Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater.

Nearly thirty years later Ireland was to get to know Machen personally, but the author’s world of fantasy and mystery had had an immediate effect upon him.  Machen’s books have been described as a “catalyst” for Ireland, something which “infused” his compositions.  He himself declared that his music could not be understood unless the listener had also read Machen’s stories.

For Ireland, Machen had the status of a “seer.” The composer’s interest in magic and the unknown were ignited by reading his stories and he shared with the author a belief in the subconscious or ‘racial memory,’ the idea that through ancient sites such as barrows and standing stones he could connect to an ancient mysticism.  At Chanctonbury Ring and Maiden Castle hillforts, for example, Ireland believed that he could still detect traces of the early rites that had been performed there.

Ireland was especially fascinated by ritual and by the occult.  He shared this, too, with Machen, who was a member of the Golden Dawn along with Yeats, Aleister Crowley, Bram Stoker and fellow fantasy novelist Algernon Blackwood.  Ireland’s particular devotion was to Pan.  In 1952 he said that:

“The Great God Pan has departed from this planet, driven hence by the mastery of the material and the machine over mankind.”

The composer was not alone in this fascination (as we have already seen from Arnold Bax).  From the 1880s until the 1940s there was something of an artistic cult for the ancient god, as is witnessed in poetry (Walter de la Mare’s They told me (see above) and Sorcery, Swinburne’s Palace of Pan, Robert Browning’s Pan and Luna and Elizabeth Browning’s A Musical Instrument) and in novels (such works as Francis Bourdillon’s A Lost God, E. F. Benson’s The Man Who Went Too Far and Saki’s The Music on the Hill.)  Aleister Crowley wrote a ‘Hymn to Pan’ and the rural god even appears in Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows, in the chapter entitled ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ (later the title of an album by Pink Floyd). Pan had an aura of decadence and Ireland was definitely attracted to the god’s darker side- the very same aspect that was celebrated by Machen.

Arthur Machen was not, of course, John Ireland’s sole influence.  He drew musically upon the spirit of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and he also found John Brand’s Observations on Popular Antiquities, a rich source of English fairy lore and folk tradition, a further valuable inspiration.  The fairy author, Sylvia Townsend Warner, who happened also to be a relative of Machen, was another influence, her concerns with physical and mental ecstasy matching Ireland’s own.

The Hill of Dreams

Ireland found Machen’s novel The Hill of Dreams intensely compelling and reckoned that it deserved a place in the ‘literary hierarchy.’  It never ceased to be a source of inspiration for him.  It is the strange story of a young man who seems to come into contact with an ancient cult at an overgrown hill fort and who is eventually claimed by the satyrs and witches who haunt the place.  The book probably helped shape Ireland’s piano concerto, Mai-Dun, which takes its title from the name Thomas Hardy used for Maiden Castle.

The mood of intoxicating summer heat, fevered sexual dreams and pagan mystery invoked here are exactly what Bax was trying to emulate in Nympholept.

Ovenden, illustration to Machen's 'White people'

Graham Ovenden, The White People

The White People

“What voice is that I hear,

Crying across the pool?

It is the voice of Pan you hear,

Crying his sorceries shrill and clear”

Walter de la Mare, Sorcery

One of the stories in Machen’s House of Souls is the remarkable White People, an account by a young girl of her encounters with mysterious white people (who may be fairies), her discovery of a lost altar to Pan and the revelation of hidden mysteries to her by water nymphs, fae spirits who may seem charming and harmless in some aspects, but fierce in others (see Bax earlier).  Ireland said that this haunting story had “astounding qualities” at which he “never ceased to marvel.”

The story directly inspired three very short piano suites written in 1913 by Ireland, Island Spell, Moon-Glade and Scarlet Ceremonies, which he grouped together under the title DecorationsScarlet Ceremonies took its title directly from The White People.  Two of its movements are headed by citations from poet Arthur Symons; for example, Island Spell begins:

“I would wash the dust of the world in a soft green flood,

Here, between sea and sea in the fairy wood,

I have found a delicate, wave-green solitude…”

The third song borrows some lines from Machen:

“Then there are the ceremonies, which are all of them important, but some are more delightful than others: there are White Ceremonies, and the Green Ceremonies, and the Scarlet Ceremonies.  The Scarlet Ceremonies are the best…”

Ireland’s fascination with pagan ritual is also demonstrated by 1913’s brief prelude for orchestra, Forgotten Rite, a composition that has been said to be permeated with Machen’s notion of a “world beyond the walls;” with the proximity of the supernatural.  The Rite was particularly inspired by the ancient landscapes of Guernsey, an island that Ireland described as being especially ‘Machenish,’ and it also invokes Pan.   In Sarnia (1940) Ireland pursued this theme, celebrating the ecstasy of communing with nature.  This ‘Island Sequence’ comprises three piano pieces, ‘Le Catioroc’ (a Guernsey headland crowned by the impressive Le Trepied dolmen), ‘In a May Morning’ and ‘Song of the Springtides,’ the being latter prefaced by a quotation from Swinburne.  The ritualistic mood again derives from Machen’s novel The Great God Pan.

le_trepied_megalithic_burial_chamber

Le Trepied

John Ireland and the Fairies

As I stated earlier, Ireland’s pagan and mystic fascinations came not just from reading (unlike Bax).  He lived his occult and faery beliefs.

In 1933 John Ireland was visiting the South Downs in Sussex. He was working on a new composition and walked high up on top the Downs to visit a ruined chapel called Friday’s Church.  Ireland was irritated to find that he was not alone.  A group of children dressed in white appeared near him and started to dance.  He watched them for some time before it began to dawn upon him that the infants made no sound and their feet upon the turf were silent.  He looked away, briefly distracted, and when he looked back- they had vanished.  He was convinced that he had had a fairy experience.  He wrote about it in detail to Machen, whose laconic reply was:

“Oh, so you’ve seen them too?”

Ireland’s piano concerto Legend was the product of this experience.

In conclusion

As I’ve suggested before, the impact of the fairy faith upon British culture is deep and persistent: it’s given rise to musicals, operas, epic novels and to plays.  All I can do, finally, is to encourage readers to go to the works of art themselves.  Read Machen and Macleod, read Blackwood and Swinburne; try the compositions of Bax and Ireland.  Sylvia Townsend Warner’s book of her own fairy tales, Kingdoms of Elfin, is also very entertaining.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cuckoos in the Scottish elf-land

maltby

Peg Maltby

There are, in Scottish fairy tradition, some fascinating but scattered clues that offer us a new perspective upon that land known widely as elfame/ elphame (the home of the elves).

Mirryland

The earliest clue to the existence of a different tradition to that we know comes from a verse romance of the earlier fifteenth century, King Berdok.  The eponymous hero of the story is ruler of Babylon and for seven years woos a maid called Mayiola or Mayok, daughter of the King of Faery.  He affectionately calls her his “the golk of Maryland.”  A golk is a cuckoo; this particular specimen is said to be but three years old and to have but one eye- nevertheless, “King Berdok luvit her weill.”

The date of Berdok is uncertain, but it was known by poet William Dunbar (1460-1522) who referred to it in his own poem In Secreit Place This Hyndir Nicht, in which another lover refers to his amour as “my golk of Marie land.”

These verses give us two curious problems: what’s the link between cuckoos and fairies and what and where is Mary land?  The latter question is a little easier to resolve.  The place name also appears as Mirry/ May/ Maiden and Murrayland.  For example, in 1596 Thomas Leyis of Aberdeen (along with much of the rest of his family, in fact) was accused of witchcraft and of dancing around the market cross in the town with the devil.  His former girlfriend, Elspet Keid, turned against him and gave evidence against him that led to his execution.  Thomas had told his erstwhile lover that he would take her to Murrayland and there marry her- “a man at the foot of a certain mountain being sure to rise at his bidding, and supply them with all they wanted.”  Given his association with supernatural powers, it seems possible that Thomas is talking about a Faery under a hill here, although we must recognise the fact that in Scotland at the time Murrayland was a real place too- the territory of Clan Murray.

Lastly, there is a ballad, ‘The rain rins down through Mirry-land toune.’  This tells the story of a young man, Sir Hew, who is killed and butchered and thrown in a well by a woman.  His mother searches for him and his ghost tells her to fetch a winding sheet, whereupon:

“And at the back of Mirry-land toune,/ It’s there we twa shall meet.”

Given the established links between faery and the dead, it seems reasonable to assume that the town is question has some supernatural nature.

Where does this odd name derive from? It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the Virgin Mary, although in the Catholic Middle Ages her presence in people’s minds is very likely to have affected the pronunciation.  Rather, the root is older than that in Britain.  The word appears to descend from the Anglo-Saxon maere, word that is preserved in modern English as ‘nightmare.’  Clearly it denotes some supernatural being- a sprite or incubus- from which it is an easy step to ‘fairy’ and thence ‘fairyland.’

she looked like a fairy queen

Walter Crane, She looked like a fairy queen (1877)

Fairy cuckoos

What about the cuckoo?  This is trickier: in Northern Europe it is a bird associated with summer, certainly, being its best known harbinger.  In the story, The Cuckoo and the Merry Tree, by Frances Browne (1857), the merry tree is some sort of evergreen like laurel, growing at the world’s end, and the cuckoo brings leaves from it in spring.

However, there seems from the Scottish traditions to be a fairy link that is now largely lost.  For example, in the Highlands it used to be said that, if it rained when the sun also shone, either the sith folk were baking or a gowk was going to heaven.  I have read that the cuckoo was regarded as being sacred to the fairies, but I haven’t been able to authenticate this.

Nonetheless, there is plenty of other folklore tradition concerning the bird- for instance, it’s said that, on hearing the first cuckoo in spring, you must run three times in a circle sun-wise to ensure good luck for the rest of the year. In addition, it’s said that if you hear a cuckoo on April 14th, you should immediately turn over any coins that you have in your pocket.  Readers will spot the fairy congruences here: the circling sunwise and the ‘turning’ of an item to dispel supernatural bad luck.  These practices may, of course, just be examples of more general folk magic but even so they serve to confirm the ‘uncanny’ nature of the bird.

Further reading

For more on faery relations with different animals, see my earlier posting on moths and pixies and on fairy beasts.  For more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

Natural World

Mermaid wisdom

-a-mermaid-combing-her-hair-goble

Warwick Goble,  A mermaid combing her hair

Mermaids are best known for their captivating beauty, a quality that can sometimes prove fatal to human lovers, and sometimes they display magical powers- they can predict the future, make curses and conjure up storms- but they are not usually thought of as founts of wisdom.  All the same, quite a few traditional folklore stories show that mermaids do have oracular powers.  Also, like oracles, it can sometimes be pretty hard to make sense of what they’re saying.

Cookery advice

Mermaids seem to have strong opinions about two matters in particular, human health and human cuisine.  The latter is especially surprising seeing as mermaids aren’t likely to cook anything at all and certainly not much that would be eaten by humans.  This doesn’t seem to stop them expressing their views, even so.  For instance, a mermaid caught in a fishing net off the Isle of Man was held captive for three weeks by the boat’s crew.  She refused to speak, eat or drink until they finally relented and took her down to the beach to set her free.  Other merfolk came to meet her at the sea’s edge and when she was asked what men were like, she said:

“Very ignorant- they throw away the water eggs are boiled in.”

Another mermaid, caught in nets near Fishguard in West Wales, advised:

“Skim the surface of the pottage before adding sweet milk.  It will be whiter and sweeter and less of it will do.”

This is probably very good advice, but how a mermaid would know about making soup with dairy products is anybody’s guess.

An incident from the Hebrides involves a mermaid escaping into the sea; she’s nearly caught by a man and she tells him his failure can be ascribed to the dryness of his bread- whereas if he’d eaten porridge and milk, he’d have overtaken her.

In one case the advice concerns the preparation of fish, which at least we can accept a mermaid might know about.  A mermaid had been trapped on the land by the magical means of sprinkling stale urine across her path (this works with fairies too).  She spoke only once in the week she spent ashore, to warn a woman gutting fish:

“Wash and clean well, there’s many a monster in the sea.”

In another case a mermaid has something to say about the preparation of fish, but in this case her words don’t seem to be about kitchen hygiene but instead are either a prediction or a grant of good fortune.  The mermaid had been caught on a hook by some Shetland fishermen; she begged to be freed and promised to grant them anything they wished for.  They returned her to the water and, before she sank beneath the waves, she declaimed a verse ending with the advice “Skoom well your fish.” One of the crew of the boat paid attention to her words and carefully skinned the next fish he caught.  He found a large and valuable pearl inside.

 

WarwickGoble_TheSea Fairies
Goble, Sea fairies

Cures & remedies

Mermaids also seem to know a good deal about human diseases and their treatment with herbal remedies.  In one Scottish case, a mermaid surfaced to see the funeral of a young woman passing on the shore and called out:

“If they would drink nettles in March

And eat mugwort in May

So many braw maidens

Wadna gang to the clay.”

A very similar story has the mermaid tell a sick girl’s lover about the mugwort remedy in good time; he makes a juice from the flower tops which saves his beloved.  There may well be some sound advice on herbal medicine being dispensed here, though once again quite what a sea dweller knows about weeds growing on dry land is another matter altogether.

warwick-goble-sea sprites

Goble, Sea sprites

Cryptic comments

Lastly, some of the mermaid sayings seem so cryptic it’s hard to make much sense at all of them.  Just before she dived out of sight beneath the waves, a mermaid who had been discovered sitting on a rock near Porth y Rhiw in South Wales said simply:

“Reaping in Pembrokeshire and weeding in Carmarthenshire.”

Another, who had become stranded on the beach as the tide went out at Balladoole on the Isle of Man called out to her rescuers:

“One butt in Ballacaigen is worth all of Balladoole.”

It’s may be possible to extract some sense from this, if the ‘butt’ refers to a barrel of fish.  If this is right, she may have been saying that the herring catch at the first location would always be better than that off the beach where she was found- a helpful hint for the men who saved her.

Summary

There’s a tendency to forget these days that mermaids are more than a pretty face (and figure) and that they have a society and a character as rounded and complex of that of the faeries.  They can be wise, they can be bewitching– and they can be deadly and dangerous.  I have tried to cover this in a succession of previous posts.

The material will appear in expanded form in a forthcoming book, ‘Fairy beasts,’ that is currently in preparation.

Goble mermaid

Goble, A mermaid